Smoke City , a sort of magical realism road trip is hard to describe. I think of Italo Calvino “on the road” with ghosts. Marvin Dietz is a Portland record store owner who specializes in vinyl. He’s being evicted illegally by a mobbed up landlord but can’t get too exercised about it because he’s going to die any day now as his 56th birthday is coming up and in his many incarnations, he has not lived to his 56th birthday, the age he died in his first life as Geoffroy Thérage, the executioner who burned Joan of Arc at the stake in 1431. Unlike most people who claim to be reincarnated, he remembers all his lives, male and female, all his lost loves, and all the languages he has learned. He believes he is cursed, but after seeing a woman on television who claims Joan has possessed her, he is desperate to find her and seek her forgiveness before he dies.

He hitches a ride to Los Angeles with Mike Vale, a former star of the art world brought low by alcoholism that he has dedicated himself to with much more loyalty and energy than his marriage or his career. When his ex-wife dies and he is invited to her funeral in L.A., he sells his last picture and heads down to L.A. picking up Marvin in Portland and in Roseville, he adds stowaway Casper, a young wannabe documentarian who hopes for success in L.A. Their trip and their adventures in L.A. is not for the faint of heart.

They are not the only visitors to L.A. There are also the smokes, ghosts who appear, seemingly lost and distraught. No one knows who they are, why they are appearing, and what it all means, though of course, apocalyptic explanations are popular.

This is the second novel by Keith Rosson I have read and I like it so much more than The Mercy of the TideSmoke City has the same powerful character development of his other novel, with a much more cohesive plot. Both have fantastical elements, but in Smoke City they are integral to the storyline, not something I wish had been eliminated.

Smoke City is a book about redemption. Mike and Marvin are not knowingly seeking redemption. I think they both believe themselves far beyond any redeeming value, but they are surprised by life and find ways to save themselves and each other. I think readers may feel some impatience at the beginning, trying to figure out where the story is going, but once it gets to moving, it’s nonstop reading pleasure. There are achingly beautiful passages overflowing with compassion. I think my favorite was when one of the minor characters is sort of watching TV, not long after his wife’s funeral. “He was just beginning to understand the great and wretched notion that you bring your dead and your love with you wherever you go.” Now when Rosson has so much for a minor character, imagine how richly he writes his main ones.

I received a copy of Smoke City from Meerkat Press.